One of the anomalies of the county's financial crunch is that while more than 200 employees may have to be laid off soon, the county has millions to spend on farmland preservation.

By law, the $13 million the county has saved to acquire the development rights for rural land can be used only for that purpose.

In the last 16 months, the success of the preservation program led some council members to the uneasy perception that it is creating millionaires in a time of recession and potential layoffs.

This month the council received 11 petitions from landowners who want to put1,321 acres into farmland preservation at a cost of roughly $24.4 million. Even though the cost is underwritten by transfer taxes and spread over 30 years -- about $1.2 million the first year and approximately $550,000 every year after that -- some council members wondered that the Farmland Preservation Board might be spending wildly and in some cases accepting land unsuitable for development.

After a two-hour seminar on the program Thursday night, most council members said they are pleased with farmland preservation and expect to vote March 4 to approve the 11 petitions.

Meanwhile, more landowners with 1,768 acres in holdings have contacted the preservation board in hopes that they can join the program later this year. If they are accepted into it, the overall amortized cost would be about $32.6 million.

Although budget administrator Raymond S. Wacks told the council the county can afford to spend $55 million for development rights if the county acts "very conservatively" -- more if not, council members Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, and Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, wonder if the preservation board is being conservative enough.

Pendergrass said she may introduce legislation that would set aside enough of the program'smoney to pay debt service for a year. However, budget director Wackssaid there is enough money in the program now to pay its debt service for a decade.

Council member Paul Farragut, D-4th, said that while he agrees with Pendergrass that the council should perhaps providea "rainy day" account, all his other questions have been satisfactorily answered and he is "very pleased" with the program.

Council member Darrel Drown, R-2nd, said he is close to ecstatic. Drown, who was the budget officer for the Board of Education prior to his electionto the council last November, said the only questions he had about the program prior to Thursday were about financing.

He said he became so convinced by Wacks' "conservative estimates" of the program's ability to support itself that he now believes the county should "go full speed ahead" with it. "Now is the golden opportunity to pick up land," he said. "If we do, people 15 years from now will look back andsay what a wonderful thing we did."

Feaga, the sole farmer on thecouncil, was not entirely convinced by the preservation board's presentation. He said he remains concerned that in some instances, the county may be buying development rights to parcels that are unsuitable for development -- parcels that are either too small or won't accept a septic system.

Feaga said that before casting his vote on new parcels coming before the council, he will visit and tour each property. Preservation board chairman James Robert Moxley III said he thinks "it's great" that Feaga plans to walk the properties. Board members do the same thing, he said.

Begun in 1980, the preservation programlanguished until by 1988, only one property owner applied for admission. The county could not compete with soaring land prices.

In October 1988, the county radically revamped the program. Instead of paying cash for development rights, it offered a competitive price that would be amortized over 30 years.

As a sweetener, participants are paid tax-free interest on the principal until the purchase price is refunded in a balloon payment 30 years later. On a $1.2 million purchase for example, the owner is paid about $99,000 a year in tax-free interest.

In eight years under the old program, the county acquired development rights to 7,781 acres. In the 16 months since the new program was begun, the county has acquired development rights to 4,457 acres with another 3,089 under consideration.

In addition, the preservation board has identified another 15,000 acres as a "primary target" for acquisition along with 4,000 acres that though they are now in "development stages" might still come into the program.

That means the goal of keeping 30,000 acres out of development is not a fantasy, farmland preservation administrator John W. Musselman told the council Thursday.

If the county negotiated a price of $6,000 an acrefor the 21,000 additional acres the preservation board is eyeing, the purchase price would be $126 million -- about twice what budget administrator Wacks said the county can conservatively afford.

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